1 Feb 2023

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  • Concert Review: Kristallnacht Commemorative Concert @ King’s School, Auckland - 14/11/2022

Concert Review: Kristallnacht Commemorative Concert @ King’s School, Auckland - 14/11/2022

15 Nov 2022 // A review by Kev Rowland

Tonight was the second of two concerts, the other being in Wellington a few nights ago, to provide a tribute to the "The Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz", telling the stories of four women through the course of the evening. It is a very long time since I attended an evening of classical music, but I was intrigued to discover more about the awful events which took place during the Second World War. It is only by remembering the past that we can prevent similar events from happening again in the future and in these days of misinformation it is more important than ever. Like many others my age I have read about what happened, but it needs to be repeated to provide the context.

On the night of 9-10 November 1938, carefully orchestrated anti-Jewish violence was carried out throughout the German Reich. Over the next 48 hours rioters - often neighbours, not strangers – ransacked and damaged more than 7,500 Jewish businesses and burned over 200 synagogues. Police stood by and did nothing to stop the destruction. Firemen were present, not to protect the synagogues or Jewish buildings but to ensure that the flames did not spread to adjacent “Aryan” property. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. The pogrom was given the name Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” or “Night of Broken Glass”), referring ironically to the litter of broken glass left in the streets. It marked the beginning of the systematic eradication of a people, and it was the prelude to the Holocaust that was to follow.

This event was presented by the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, in partnership with New Zealand School of Music—Te Koki, Victoria University of Wellington, and was curated by Inbal Megiddo who would also be playing and narrating, so a busy night for her.

The concert musicians are:

Amalia Hall, Violin

Martin Riseley, Violin

Inbal Megiddo, Cello

Kristallnacht Ensemble

Narration: Inbal Megiddo and Sharn Maree Cassady

MC: Donald Maurice MNZM

The auditorium at the school is a wonderful space, with a nice bank of permanent seating so that it was easy to see everything taking place down on the floor where chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle for all those involved. There were also two projection screens down from the ceiling currently showing the titles for the evening and I was intrigued to see if they would be used to display images during the night.

Although I have captured what happened tonight, this is less of a review and more of a retelling so that those who were not here can read, understand, and think. This was a powerful event, something which I know deeply touched all who were here.

A string octet came out to applause, and Inbal Megiddo took her place at the centre. Sharn then commenced the evening by talking about what had happened at Kristillnacht, and how the Holocaust centre of New Zealand has been playing concerts in Wellington for some years, but tonight was the first in Auckland. Donald then took over to describe what was going to happen in the evening, that it would be a 90-minute event with no break. Also, he told us that we would be following the stories of different women, and we started with Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a niece of Gustav Mahler who asked soldiers for a cello when they liberated Belsen. While Inbal played unaccompanied, a picture was displayed of a young Anita, which made it all seem so very real. The music felt stark, jagged, yet full of emotion performed in perfect silence.

After the piece was completed, Donald then narrated the story of Anita and her family. As the restrictions on Jews started to take place, Anita and her sister commenced work in a factory and were deemed essential workers so were not sent away when their parents were. They started forging documents to help the war effort, but they were caught and deemed to be criminals as opposed to being Jews. Once convicted they were finally sent to Auschwitz. We even had a video of Anita relating this story.

Alma Rosé’s father was a famous conductor and was also a niece of Mahler, and was destined for a career as a performer. Her debut at age 20 in 1926 was intended to launch her career as soloist, and this was the cue for Amalia and Martin, accompanied by the rest of the ensemble to then perform the same piece. The stories were being interwoven with the relevant music so each took on more poignancy. Inbal then told the story of the group formed by Alma in 1932, and while a photo was up on the screen of that ensemble, the strings again played. It seemed somewhat incongruous to hear such happy music when we are thinking about times so dark, yet it made me wonder what it must have been like for the women in the camp being asked to play jolly tunes for the guards and soldiers while so many others were being executed.

Although Alma and her family emigrated to London before the war started, they were unable to find work as immigrants, and in November 1939 Alma travelled to Holland to perform, and the next pieces were taken from the program of that night. Amalia has a wonderfully light touch, and when she stands and plays with rest of the strings behind her, she stands out with a strength behind the beauty, and she is so invested in the music it is hard to look away.

Alma continued to play in Holland and send money back to her family in London, but in 1942 she attempted to escape to Switzerland and was captured before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. The commandant of the camp was desperate to have her own orchestra, and even though Alma was initially placed in an experimentation block, she was recognised by a Dutch nurse who was a flautist who had previously played with Alma. Initially Alma did not want to play, but eventually she asked for a violin for one last time, and she played to the inmates of Block 10 where those who were well enough got up and danced, which was the cue for Amalia to play again. The stories (all horribly true remember), music and images are tightly interwoven so they all impact on each other, accentuating the pain.

Alma was brought to Block 12, and was tasked to create an orchestra to rival the men’s and she immediately started a search for more musicians and developed an intensive rehearsal schedule. Sharn then brought us back to Anita, and she narrated in between a layered video of Anita telling the story of how when she was having her head shaved and being tattooed, she had a conversation with the person doing this and told her that she used to play the cello. She was told to stay where she was while Alma was brought along to talk to her, and the two had a conversation while Anita was totally naked and with no hair. She was asked to come along for an audition, where Anita found it incredibly strange to be in Auschwitz and have a cello in her hands for the first time in two years, but after she reacquainted herself with the instrument she performed and passed, and now it was time for Inbal to play with the ensemble. It was through these auditions that Alma built the orchestra and saved the lives of the women, which was the cue now for the ensemble.

Only 4 or 5 of the musicians were professional, the rest were amateurs, and we had a video of Esther Béjarano who played piano, but was told she could join if she could play the accordion, the only problem was she didn’t know how to play the left hand, but she managed to get in.

The day started before dawn, then after the roll call, they played music at the gates for when people went in and out, as well as being available whenever a member of SS staff wanted to hear music. We then had a video of a woman saying she had to play for Mengele. That piece was then played by Inbal with the ensemble, with the video frozen on the screen, and to hear that beauty combined with the horror of the monster who requested it is almost too much to bear.

Alma never showed any fear of the Germans, and they even called her “Frau Alma”. Those in the orchestra were all frightened of her as she was so strict, but she turned them into a musical entity even though only 4 or 5 of them could read music. Their block was opposite the crematoria, and they knew what was going on and rehearsed all day so they would not suffer the same fate. They were granted better rations, were allowed to sleep only two to a bed, and Anita was even able to use her role as cellist to get her sister the role as camp runner and they stayed together until they were liberated. It is believed that Alma saved about 60 women, as those who were not good enough to play became copyist of the scores. Although Jewish music was banned, they did have a piece by Mendelssohn in their repertoire which gave them a small amount of courage, and it was time for Amalia and the ensemble to perform it.

In April 1944 Alma fell ill and within a few days she died, and without her the orchestra fell to pieces with some of them sent to Bergen Belsen, while those who stayed in Auschwitz were executed. She stayed in the camp for a year and was given a cello, and finally made it to London where she told Alma’s father what had happened, and then found a teacher, playing the cello for the rest of her life.

Esther Béjarano went to Israel becoming a singer, before returning to Germany in 1960, telling the story of what had happened, determined that it would never happen again. We then saw with a video of her performing with the Microphone Mafia as an elderly lady. She died last year aged 96.

The final story is that of Clare Galambos-Winter, but unlike the others featured tonight she was not a member of the Women’s Orchestra, and it was only when she retired that others discovered she had been in Auschwitz. On the night of the invasion of Hungary Clare was rehearsing, and on her way home she was arrested and put into a cell for three nights before being allowed home. Soon a ghetto was created, and she was eventually dispatched to Auschwitz, and when she got onto the transport a solider took her violin away saying she would not need it where she was going. She was separated from her mother at the camp, but managed to stay with her aunt. The orchestra played in the camp and although Clare was pushed to join, she decided to stay and soon her and her aunt volunteered for slave duty. It was here that she was again reunited with a violin, where she was told to play so the SS could dance. They managed to escape from the death march, and in 1949 they came to New Zealand.

In celebration, Martin and Amalia then played three duets by Hungarian composer Bartók, with Martin playing one of the violins donated by Clare to Victoria University.

Anita was the last surviving member of the orchestra, and when she landed in London, she wanted to tell her story, but no-one wanted to listen, so it was only after her children asked that she wrote it down. Sharn then delivered a poem in tribute to Anita, firstly in English and then in Te Reo, with the performance ending with the words of Anita, recorded in an interview with Inbal last year. She told us to talk to each other and celebrate our differences, explain, and respect each other.

The evening finished with Honorary Life Memberships being bestowed on both Donald Maurice MNZM and Dr Inbal Megiddo.

Photo Credit: Kev Rowland


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